By Kelly Flanagan

Therapy and the Gospel: Declaring the Good-Enough News

Last month, I sat in a room full of people and watched our group leader write on a white board the word each of us had identified as core to who we are. Words like


The list went on and on, but the truth is it could have been reduced to three words: Not good enough. Here’s the striking thing, though: it wasn’t a room full of therapy patients. It was a room full of therapists.

Out of the Shame and into the Beauty

We all hear the not-good-enough whisper murmuring at the edge of our hearts. Therapists are not simply experts sitting on a perfect perch casting down healing insights. Therapists are wounded healers who have heard the whisper and know what to call it.

That never-good-enough place inside of us is called shame.

Shame is the belief that our brokenness is the whole truth about who we are and that we are unworthy of love and belonging and connectedness. It’s a lie—but we hear it so often, and in so many ways, it begins to ring true.

When we enter therapy, we begin a journey out of the shame-full lie and into the truth of our basic goodness and beauty, with a therapist-guide who knows the terrain—someone who has entered into the depths of humanity and has returned to the surface to proclaim, “There is something beautiful down there!”

The Music Inside

The morning after the white board and its never-good-enough words, I came down the stairs to find my wife and three children at the breakfast table, gathered around an iPad listening to a song. The song was “What Makes Us Beautiful” by the boy band One Direction.

But this version wasn’t by One Direction. It was a gorgeous arrangement of piano and percussion. Wondering why my kids were so entranced by a piano, I peered over their shoulders and saw the answer.

The Piano Guys had ripped the cover off of a piano, and five of them were playing the song using the innards of the instrument—the strings and the wood and the metal. With the guts of the instrument, they had transformed a forgettable song into a rare beauty.

I think discovering our true selves—our lovely souls buried beneath all the layers of shame—is like ripping the cover off the instruments we are, and discovering that what is inside of us can produce a rare kind of beauty. It’s like tearing away our false selves—all the layers of protection and pretending—and finding out the cover was unnecessary, because the music of our lives is made by what’s really at the core of us.

And in the midst of it, we discover there is something bigger than us playing music in us and through us, and the notes it’s producing are sublime.

Marinating in the Truth

I think a therapy room is often the place where the gospel of Jesus is declared in its purest form. Because it’s the place where the darkness of our shame finally yields, as the truth is allowed to shine: We are valuable. We are worthy of respect. We are beautifully made.

That’s the gospel of Jesus. The Good News is really the Good-Enough News; the gospel is grace-in-skin proclaiming we are, quite simply, good enough. All the work has been done. We have been created as instruments with guts of beauty—now all we have to do is play our way into the symphony.

In his book, Tattoos on the Heart, Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle tells the story of a gangbanger named Willy who, when forced to sit in a car in stillness, discovers the breathtaking grace of the Good-Enough News:

I look at Willy and say, “You prayed, didn’t you?”

He doesn’t look at me. He’s still and quiet. “Yeah, I did.”

I start the car.

“Well, what did God say to you?” I ask him.

“Well, first He said, ‘Shut up and listen.’”

“So what d’ya do?”

“Come on, G,” he says, “What am I sposed ta do? I shut up and listened.”

I begin to drive him home to the barrio. I’ve never seen Willy like this. He’s quiet and humble—no need to convince me of anything or talk me out of something else.

“So, son, tell me something,” I ask. “How do you see God?”

“God?” he says, “That’s my dog right there.”

“And God?” I ask, “How does God see you?”

Willy doesn’t answer at first. So I turn and watch as he rests his head on the recliner, staring at the ceiling of my car. A tear falls down his cheek. Heart full, eyes overflowing. “God . . . thinks . . . I’m . . . firme.

To the homies, firme means, “could not be one bit better.”

Not only does God think we’re firme, it is God’s joy to have us marinate in that.

A therapy room is the place we bring all of our pretending and sadness and fear and frustration. And, ultimately, it’s the place we bring our not-good-enough selves. It’s the place we learn to be still again, so we can hear the voice calling us “Beloved.” So we can touch our guts and the beauty there and know we are blessedly good enough.

So we can marinate in it.

One in four adults—about 61.5 million Americans—wrestle with mental illness each year, and 13.6 million live with a serious, ongoing illness such as bipolar disorder or major depression. October 6 to 12 is Mental Illness Awareness Week, so we’re posting stories and tools over the next few days to foster conversation and break down misconceptions about mental illness. As you read, may you be encouraged in your own life and better equipped to help others in the journey. 

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist, practicing at Alliance Clinical Associates in Wheaton, Illinois. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from his kids how to be a child again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

You might also be interested in:

How God Helps Us Love Ourselves

Or check out these resources from InterVarsity Press:

Released from Shame: Moving Beyond the Pain of the Past

Distorted Images of Self (LifeGuide Bible Study)

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Is this for real? These are really the words you came up with? I just got home from a difficult therapy session. A new topic keeps coming up, and for all sorts of confusing reasons it is just very difficult. Not Enough. Not Good Enough. You have no idea how much it meant for me to read this - that therapists struggle with this very thing. And the picture of the piano ... this is beautiful. Gosh but I want to believe this. That my story is beautiful. Underneath everything. Thank you so much.

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